We Need to Talk About Female Sexual Health in the Middle East / Sundes Al Blushi
Sundes Al Blushi discusses the rights of unmarried women in Kuwait when it comes to their sexual health. she shares her experience with several doctors in her quest to get a basic cervical cancer test in her homeland.
I think every woman experiences sexual health issues and doesn’t quite know what to do about it - or even, what it is. But when you go for a regular pap smear, and get some abnormal results, things turn from mild concern or even disgust with your own body, to absolute horror.
I live in Kuwait, which in comparison to other countries in the Middle East, is considered to be quite liberal. However, it is still a Muslim country - and the stigma which surrounds female sexual health is still religiously considered. This means that I cannot go to a free government-funded hospital, as a single woman, to get a pap smear. I have to be married, because nothing seems to be more important in my culture than the virginity of women. I have no choice but to go to a private hospital and pay an incredible amount of money to get a normal check up.
In 2012, I went for my annual pap smear. I was going to this private clinic where my friends had told me the gynaecologist would treat you in a manner which was free of judgment, and she was friendly in her approach. In a situation like this, the recommendations from my close ones were especially important to me as a young woman, because their words of support were usually indicators that I would not come under fire of harassment - something which was unfortunately common. Some of the experiences my friends had endured include their doctor asking “why are you here if you are not married?” and proclaiming that it is “haram” or sinful to have a check up - these chats were often followed up with a lecture about how Islam forbids a single woman to undergo this kind of procedure.
But, during this particular pap smear, I had some abnormal results. I wasn’t sure what it was or what to think about it. All I knew is that pap smears were to check for any abnormalities in my cervix and to check for a precancerous stage. Naturally, I started searching online for what it meant to have an abnormal pap smear, and Google told me I could possibly have cervical cancer. Freaked out, I called my doctor, asking her to explain what it all means and what my next step should be.
“You don’t need to worry, it happens,” she said.
I took her word. I didn’t go to any pap smear or do anything about it for 4 years. But in 2016, way outside of my usual menstruation cycle, I started bleeding. It didn’t make sense. Why am I bleeding when I am not even close to my period? What is going on?
And I remembered my abnormal pap smear results, and thought maybe this is the time to go to a doctor - a different one, since the last one wasn’t really of much help.
I went to the same private clinic since it was the cheapest and it was all I could afford at the time. There was this doctor, a male gynecologist, who one of my friends recommended me to, saying, “he isn’t the worst”. I wasn’t very comfortable with him to begin with. But he seemed more invested in my health than the other doctor I had seen a few years prior. He checked my ovaries and got another pap smear. I had lots of cysts all over my ovaries and had to wait for my pap smear results. Nothing was really settling well with me.
A week later, I go in to discuss what my results are, which turned out to be another abnormal result, which led to my doctor insisting on giving me another ultrasound to check my ovaries. Completely off guard, the doctor grabs me from the waist with both his hands, and pulls me lower on the bed. It’s already an awkward situation being with a gynecologist, and then being touched anywhere else where
you didn’t need to be touched, that’s where it becomes uncomfortable.
The doctor starts telling me, in a normal inside voice, not in his signature whisper, “You need to have surgery.”
“What do you mean, I need to have surgery?” I asked, getting a little nervous.
“We need to perform surgery tomorrow because I leave the day after and it will take 2 hours to perform this surgery,” he tells me, in a normal voice, speaking quite quickly and urgently.
“Wait, wait, what do you mean I have to have surgery tomorrow? I have work, I have to arrange this,” I tell him, feeling both frustrated and uneasy.
“What is more important is to see if the operating rooms are even available tomorrow and I leave to London the day after, so we must perform the surgery tomorrow,” he says, coming straight into my personal space all official and dismissing everything I had said.
I felt scared. What the hell is going on? Who does he think he is? Why isn’t he telling me why I need this surgery, and 2 hours seems like a really long time for an abnormal pap smear result.
I couldn't maintain my calm any longer.
The doctor failed to tell me anything about the procedure, or why I needed it. It was as if I wasn't entitled to know about my own sexual health. I left the clinic feeling disheartened but decided to find a different solution. With doctors who are either indifferent to your case or pushy and oddly violating, I started realising that private clinics and hospitals weren’t in the business of actually helping people; they were generally only trying to make money.
At this point, I did not have enough money to go to a different private hospital or clinic. My only choice was to give the public clinic a shot, and maybe if I lied and said I was married, I would be able to see a doctor. A week later, I went to my local clinic, my plan worked, and I saw a doctor. She was a composed Indian lady with a bright red dot on her forehead, who spoke perfect English. I felt like this was finally my chance to figure out what I needed to do. I gave her my papers and explained my situation. She doesn’t say anything for a while, and looks at her computer screen, where my file information is and sees I am not married.
“You are single?”, she asked, with a tone of judgment in her voice.
“Well, yes, but as you can see from my results, I need to get something done and I can’t seem to get a doctor to help me,” I said sounding a little desperate.
“I can’t help you,” she says firmly, “it is against religious regulations for me to even check you, and with your case you will need to go to the main Maternity hospital, and as it is a public hospital, you will need me to sign transfer papers for your case.”
“Ok well, will you give me a transfer so that I can go there?” I ask timidly, hoping she would say yes but knowing better.
“It is against religious regulations, so no, I can’t help you,” she says again dismissively, not even looking at me, but talking to me as if I was wasting her time.
“But you’re a doctor, didn’t you take an oath?” I say, feeling completely small, with tears in my eyes.
She keeps repeating like a broken record, “It is against religious regulations,” and I storm out.
I don’t know how long I sat in my car for. I felt like I was a disposable piece of trash, like I was at the bottom of the food chain. I cried for a while, feeling hopeless and shocked. I knew there were limitations to being a single woman in Kuwait, but to this extent? To the extent where I couldn’t even get a doctor who would tell me why I needed surgery?
I felt like Kuwait had kicked me down. I felt like the religion and culture had kicked me down. I felt like the entire Middle East and everything about it was putting me down and reminding me of my place in this society.
I had to ask for a favour from a friend who is a doctor, to help me see a gynaecologist in the main public Maternity hospital. After two months of trying to figure the situation out, I finally saw a doctor who was what a doctor should be: invested and caring. I ended up getting a small procedure that lasted around ten to fifteen minutes.
Two weeks later, my results were fine and my doctor told me I could go back to annual regular pap smears. It was a relief to know that nothing was wrong with me. But with this entire experience, it made me realise how much single Arab women are treated with so many injustices. Imagine a woman who had seen my previous doctor for the same situation that I was in, and ended up having that 2 hour surgery. Imagine the women who actually go to him and trust him. Imagine the women who don’t even have the money to go to a private clinic or even the choice to go to a public clinic.
My story is just a metaphor for what single Arab women have accepted as their fate: that they are lesser beings and it is constantly emphasised from the society, unjust government, and the religion (even if nobody wants to admit it).
If you are not being a mother or a wife, you are useless factor of society. If you are not serving a man or a family, then what is your purpose? These are the statements that are pressured into girls’ minds in this culture. Sometimes it feels like there is no escape of the insurmountable amount of injustices that occur daily and that there is no way to fight back. But there are many little battles that need to be conquered for Arab women, from driving to getting a pap smear. Hopefully, we get to a solution where we are not considered lesser beings, and where women can have equal rights.
Words by: Sundes Al Blushi
Artwork by: Hosseini Razie